Blues Women and Black Feminism

The blues women of the 1920s produced the first feminist body of work in American culture (and literature) and yet they were stars across gender and racial lines. For African-American audiences, their songs mediated the excitement and nostalgia generated by the Great Migration from the agrarian environment of the South to the urban, industrial North and West. The role of these women as cultural leaders was captured early by Sterling Brown's poem, "Ma Rainey" (1932) and later in August Wilson's Broadway play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1982). The songs and performances of Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, and Clara Smith (among others) focused on young women afoot in a brave new world of independence, transience, sexuality, violence, loss, and mobility. In the songs of blueswomen, the themes of family and domesticity are conspicuous by their absence: there is barely a husband, child or kitchen in the entire body of work.

With her deep, powerful contralto, Bessie Smith’s songs foregrounded an individual woman’s experience: she sang alternately with lusty pride and melancholy of sexual desire and economic hardship. She ran her own vaudeville troupe, drank and fought hard and often, and once scared off a bunch of Klansmen by herself. The protégé of Ma Rainey, Smith sang of the road as a metaphor for life: “I’m a rambling woman…with a rambling mind.” Her artistic influence remains vital in artists from Bonnie Raitt to Erykah Badu to Lucinda Williams.

Lizzie Miles was a Creole of Color born and raised in New Orleans who began singing in the bands of King Oliver and Kid Ory, the original generation of jazz musicians. Born Elizabeth Mary Landreaux, she often sang in both French and English in bands that combined jazz and blues. In the 1920s, she lived in Chicago and New York, where she recorded mostly with session musicians but on occasion Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver. She traveled to Europe in Sam Wooding's band, recorded later with Fats Waller, and after a long illness, enjoyed a successful comeback in the 1950s.